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Thursday, 21 June 2012 14:52

Q&A: Brian Walker, President and CEO, Herman Miller

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Q&A: Brian Walker, President and CEO, Herman Miller PHOTO: Jeff Hage
Over the more than two decades he's worked at Herman Miller Inc., President and CEO Brian Walker experienced the industry's highs and felt the pain of its steep decline during the recent recession. Today, Walker says he's "cautiously optimistic" about the industry's direction, and he's concentrating on what the company can do internally to affect its success. That's certainly kept the Zeeland-based manufacturer busy. "We're launching a total of a couple hundred products over an 18-24 month period," Walker told MiBiz during an interview at the company's showroom at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago during the NeoCon trade show.

This year, the company seems to be reaching back to its past for some of its new product introductions. Tell me about that.

We've had a plan for the last two or three years to build this new business we call the Herman Miller Collection, which is a crossover really between the consumer world and the contract world. We think the people want a deeper integration of what they do in their personal lives into their work environments. We saw that as a coming trend.

How do you build the company's future off at least a portion of its past?

We happened to have a very strong heritage in home products that we thought we could build off from, as a jumping off point. This isn't about reintroducing Eames (designs). This is about creating a capability going forward. We happened to have some products that fit. ... It was a new way for Herman Miller to reach out to an even broader audience.

These aren't just the same old products, however. How did you update some of these classics?

We've updated some of them with new material, new finishes, new construction techniques. ...With some of the reissues, you see us changing material types. We're thinking about what the designer would have done in today's world versus what they did 20 years ago.

Granted you're introducing new products, but don't you run some risks by bringing back a lot of the old catalog?

What we don't want to be is the antique dealer. We want to make sure that we are building things that are relevant for today's work and life environments. That's been a core part of what we've been trying to do. We're not out trying to do things we did in the past. We're trying to take a forward view. We happen to think that one of the great things about Herman Miller is many of our designs are timeless.

It wasn't long ago that we heard the office was dead. Where do you see the nature of workplaces going?

We think the most progressive companies that want to retain and have the best talent are going to find a way to build offices and spaces that have a strange attraction to people that you just want to be there.

How does furniture help a company be progressive?

Being progressive is all about the attitude you take as a company, the culture you create and the kind of talent you're going to go get. Furniture often becomes an icon of the kind of culture you're trying to create and how you want it to feel. You only have to look to companies like Apple and realize they're spending a lot of time thinking about their new headquarters because they believe it affects the way people work and it affects who they get there. When I'm thoughtful about the design of my facility, it tells my employees that I'm thoughtful about them and that I care about them.

How do you appeal to a mix of generations with your products?

This next generation really wants things that are lasting. They're not going to buy as many things, but the things they buy, they're going to be very considerate with. ... We're not trying to position ourselves as for a generation. We think great design is transcendent. It transcends genres, it transcends geography and it transcends age brackets.

What about the Michigan environment: Has doing business in Michigan gotten any better?

I think that the current governor and his administration generally have done a fantastic job. I think they have made the environment for Michigan better than it's been in a long time. And I think they've done it in a way that's been inclusive of a broad political spectrum, which has been great to see.

What keeps you up at night?

I stay awake worrying about things we can change. I'm really pleased (with) the journey we started seven or eight years ago at Herman Miller to say: How do we broaden our horizons and the people we can reach out to? We're every year taking concrete steps toward being able to do that. This year, we took two or three more big steps in that direction (by) acquiring our partner in China (Posh Office Systems Ltd.), with taking a step with the Herman Miller Collection. I think that we're moving in the right direction for where we need to be in the long run. 

Read 5319 times Last modified on Sunday, 29 July 2012 22:41

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